With the overnight CNN poll showing the presidential debate a draw, what is George W. Bush to do? He acquitted himself well on his signature issues of education, Social Security, health care and the rest but it is clear he is fighting on Al Gore’s turf.
It is all counterpunching. The current poll by ABC and The Washington Post shows the results: Mr. Gore is up 50 to 39 percent on the education issue and 45 to 36 percent on health care. Ring lore is that a challenger cannot win a prize fight without offense. The poll even shows Mr. Bush behind in keeping down the cost of gasoline, when his opponent helps set the government’s current energy policy.
Counting on issues such as education, prescription drugs for the elderly, welfare for the needy, universal health care and even Social Security, no matter how good, cannot escape the traditional Republican dilemma. Mr. Bush cannot outspend the Democrats and he comes out looking cheap. Even on tax cuts, Mr. Gore was constantly on the attack that cuts will go to the rich” and the two are tied on the issue in the polls. Fighting on taxes is his best issue but Gov. Bush’s big tax plan is too complicated for the average voter. What Mr. Bush needs is a simple tax cut that would go to everyone.
The high price of gasoline, the anti-fuel tax demonstrations in Europe and the “blame big oil” response of Al Gore have created an incredible opportunity. The cost of gas is a simple issue voters can easily grasp. It is as simple and as winning as Gov. James Gilmore’s attack on the car tax in Virginia. Everyone pays it and no one likes it. Mr. Bush’s response in the debate was too abstract. In fact, Al Gore proposed a 12 cents a gallon BTU tax on all fossil fuels in 1993 and when Congress killed that he cast the tie-breaking Senate vote for a 4.3 cent a gallon gas tax increase. His famous book called the internal-combustion engine “the single greatest threat to our civilization” and he reiterated his support for its ideas in its new introduction. How can one lose critical Michigan against a person who wants to starve the auto industry? Targets Ohio, Missouri and Pennsylvania have big energy components too. This should be a slam dunk.
The reason for Republican caution is the perceived liberalization of the electorate on economic issues. But even if there has been a public turn left, it is not so far left as to abandon the American love of the automobile. If even the socialist-saturated voters of Europe get it, it should be an easy sell here. Liberals there played the same “blame it on big oil” game as Al Gore. But an aggressive response turned the censure back on government regulation and high taxes. Taxes on energy are not as high here but that is not because Mr. Gore has not tried. Not only has he proposed European-like high gas taxes to cut energy consumption but he was the chief voice for an energy tax within the Clinton administration. His support for the Kyoto Protocol’s extreme carbon dioxide emissions reduction would put everyone on bicycles. This is not a cheap shot but aims at the center of what Al Gore believes.
The case is easy to make but it will take courage. The Wall Street Journal dug up a Bush statement expressing concern about his father’s policy of “cheap energy.” It is easy for him to defend this and he must, and then talk about nothing but cutting the gas tax for the rest of the campaign. For a long time, the Texas governor could afford a cautious strategy. Mr. Bush broke all records for a Republican until the vice president’s convention, for the first time receiving more favorable media coverage than the Democrat. Now reality has returned. The Center for Media and Public Affairs has just documented what is obvious to all: In September, Mr. Gore received 55 percent favorable media coverage to Mr. Bush’s 35 percent. The race is close but a determined attack on Mr. Gore’s philosophy of taxing gasoline so people will not drive autos could blow it open.
It is not that Al Gore has “no energy policy.” He has an energy policy and it is to cut consumption of carbon-based energy fuels. The way to do that is to tax it right up to the 80 percent level of some of the Europeans. George Bush can win that debate in the critical rust belt states even if he is not the smoother talker. But he must have a simple tax policy people can comprehend, and then sell it. Just ask Jim Gilmore.
Donald Devine, former director of the U.S. Office of Personnel Management, is a columnist and a Washington-based policy consultant.